Psychological Implications of Climate Change

As Lertzman (2019) and other scholars in the field of climate psychology argue, an individual or community with few or no resources to process the difficult emotions presented by the realities of a changing climate are more likely to dis-engage through a variety of what we might call maladaptive or defensive responses. These can include denial, apathy, avoidance and minimizing, over-reliance on others to ‘fix’ the problem, blame, overwhelm, extreme optimism or pessimism, a manic focus on good news and more.

All of these are attempts to address the paradox that Lertzman describes as the need to “stay present with what’s really painful and stay connected in the face of what is threatening and scary” (Lertzman, 2019). The sources of this fear and discomfort vary and intersect with one another. They might include dimensions such as: the loss of our belief in a safe and reliable future (Weintrobe, 2013); the loss of access to culturally significant or culturally defining practices; the disconnect between our sense of identity as ‘good people’ and the ecological debt invoked by the realities of climate change (Randall, 2013); and the challenge of assimilating the scope and scale of a problem as all-encompassing as the climate crisis (Hoggett, 2013).

We are focusing on this paradox early in the course because, within the work of dialogue and engagement for climate adaptation, we can embed practices that help create the conditions to be attentive to the psychological impacts of climate change on our communities. By doing so, we can respond and plan in ways that are commensurate with the scale of the problem, while also leaving us more resilient and ready for the uncertain future that lies ahead.

While it is critical that we take an empathetic view of the experiences of those we are trying to engage, whether internally within our organizations or in communities, this attention to the psychological implications of climate change is not just about what happens out there with others. Because we live within nested systems, the degree to which each of us, as practitioners, are able to hold this paradox skilfully is directly related to the degree to which we can engage skillfully in the work of partnership, collaboration, and consultation.


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Strategic Dialogue and Engagement for Climate Adaptation Copyright © by Simon Fraser University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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